DRAGNET WAS A POPULAR TV POLICE DRAMA in the 1950s and 60s, featuring dramatized actual cases from the Los Angeles Police Department. The main character, Sergeant Joe Friday (played by Jack Webb), was a terse, no-nonsense cop just looking to solve cases and catch crooks as quickly and efficiently as possible. When interrogating any witnesses who might offer extra opinions or emotional side trips (usually a woman; it was the 50s and 60s), Friday would cut them off with, “All we want are the facts, ma’am” (not the “Just the facts, ma’am” of legend). All that mattered to Friday were the relevant data necessary to reaching a definitive conclusion to a criminal investigation, to put it analytically. All he wanted were the bits and pieces of the truth as the way things really are, narrowly constrained to a narrow purpose. But even in the context of the show we learn that facts do not, and cannot, just hang in mid-air. Every episode of Dragnet began with the narration, “The story you are about to see is true,” and ended with, “The story you have just seen is true.” So, it turns out that what Sergeant Friday was really trying to do was not just accumulate isolated, unconnected facts, but find the narrative in which all these facts made sense, the complete and true story of the crime he was investigating. This is the way Truth is. The bits and pieces of “facts”, the threads of truth, only make sense when they are woven together into one seamless story, a story of the way things really are.
There are small stories, Big Stories, and metanarratives. These are not watertight categories; not until “metanarrative” anyway. Joe Friday’s crime-solving scenario is a small story. Joe Friday’s life story is also a small story. A history of the Los Angeles Police Department is bigger than Joe Friday’s story, but not yet really a Big Story. A Big Story does offer a much larger context in which to place and make more sense of our smaller stories. A history of the settlement and development of the United States of America is definitely a Big Story, but it fits into a bigger Big Story, the history of Western Civilization from ancient Rome to the present; etc. Something like nesting Russian dolls. A history of the human race would be a really big Big Story; but if were only a straight chronology of historical events, facts, dates, and personages, it would not yet be a metanarrative.
A Big Story becomes a metanarrative when it offers answers (any answers, not necessarily correct ones) to life’s ultimate questions, such as Why are we here?, What is the meaning to our existence?, Where did everything come from?, etc. A meta-narrative is a Narrative about narratives; a Story about stories. And a metanarrative makes the (rather bold) claim that all the other stories—big ones, small ones, and even other stories that also claim to be metanarratives—are best understood and explained in the context of that metanarrative. Major world religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.—are, among other things, metanarratives. So are Atheistic Materialist, Secular Humanism (or Secular Progressivism, take your pick), and Marxism.
When the late philosopher Richard Rorty denied that there was any such thing as “Truth” (with a capital T), he was dismissing the possibility of there being any such thing as a valid metanarrative; there was no one True Story that made sense of all stories. This denial—or “incredulity toward metanarratives” as French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard put it—is the beating heart of what is called the “postmodern” condition. As a declaration of the actual nature of reality, the denial of metanarratives is, of course, self-evidently nonsense. It’s like saying, “the Truth is there is no Truth.” The denial of metanarratives is a metanarrative, and one that claims to be absolutely true for everybody. It is a declaration that there is no meaning to the universe. But as C.S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity, “If the universe has no meaning we should not have found out that it has no meaning; just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. ‘Dark’ would be without meaning.” In a meaningless universe, ‘meaningless’ would have no meaning.
On the other hand, the phrase “incredulity toward metanarratives” is a good description (if a bit technical) of a certain lightly tossed contemporary attitude that we need take little or no account of serious explanations, deeper issues, ultimate questions, or Truth. A less technical description of it would be the attitude of “Whatever.” But, to make a long argument short, this attitude only works, and works only for a short while, amongst privileged younger people in industrialized societies who have sufficient material resources to fund a “Whatever” lifestyle for awhile. Besides, the attitude is also disingenuous, delusional, or both.
We cannot escape our desire and drive toward metanarrative. We all want to know what the meaning of our existence is. We all want to know if there is a True Story that will tell us who we really are. Our life comes to us and we gather it only in fragments. We read, we are told, or we imagine the whole and so try to arrange all the pieces of our lives in some way that we hope will tell us who we are, and why we are. And when we have assembled enough pieces we build stories and try to tell ourselves who we are, and why we are. We want our stories to all be true and to all have happy endings, yet often they jostle and bump one another, sometimes they clash and break. Beauty and despair, anger and love, mix and tumble violently. Often the stories we tell ourselves as much conceal hurt as they reveal truth. It is sometimes hard to tell what the truth is, and harder still to tell the truth, even to ourselves. How can we know what the True Story of our lives is?
Next Week: Truth Be Told—Part 2: How Can We Know What The Truth Is?